Winter solstice heralds the coming of spring

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By Sylvia Brockner

Looking out the window, I still see snow on the ground, and we will have snow for at least three more months. However, this past Monday, Dec. 20, was the changing point, and yesterday was the beginning of the change, the winter solstice, or the first day of winter.

That’s the day my husband, Bill, used to call the best day of the year because it meant that from that day forward every day became a bit longer, and this meant spring was on its way. The best time of the year.

Actually, as I look out the window, it looks like spring. But we who have lived here for some years know that more snow will come, for our snowiest, deepest snowstorms are usually in March and April. Dec. 21 may be a day of joy for spring lovers, but we know it is slow in coming. About a minute a day, it seems a long time before we can see any difference.

At first it seems like the growing daylight comes at the end of the day. It takes quite awhile before we can really notice that the sun is setting a bit later.

The very first signs of spring are short lived, ephemeral, coming and going between snowstorms, but that doesn’t mean they are any less welcome. Everyone except winter sports enthusiasts is already sick of winter.

Slippery roads, long nights, below-zero temperatures and frozen pipes are all part of winter. By the time the spring equinox arrives in March, we are truly ready for spring.

However, there are minute signs now to lift our spirits and reassure us that spring does eventually arrive. One of the first things I notice is the greening of the ponderosa pine forest. The winter snows and first rains wash the accumulation of fall and summer dust from the pine needles, and they begin to shimmer in the spring sunshine. A welcome sight. Streams begin to open between snowstorms, and we have water holes in the ice where mule deer, elk and dippers come for their morning drink.

Chipmunks wake up when we have two or three nice days and run across the snow looking for food. The very earliest bird migrants begin to move. Snow melts on the south-facing slopes, puddles form at midday, and dark-eyed juncos leave our feeders to forage on the meadows and fields, where they find native seeds more to their liking than the millet in my feeders.

Usually February brings more sunny days and warmer temperatures, which melt the snow on trees and roofs, forming icicles. As the icicles melt, the water flows down to the icicle tips and is blown by the wind to one side. Soon the wind-chill factor freezes the drops, and each curves a bit farther away until they form magical icicle scimitars, a wonder to behold.

No, it won’t be spring for a long time, but we can see little hints that it is coming, and the plowed roads will be free of ice, so we can go for a walk.

This is also a good time of year to look for snowshoe rabbits, also known as varying hares. These are much bigger rabbits than our little cottontails. They are usually found in willow thickets in the lower parts of the tundra or the higher parts of the montane zones. If you drive up the road from Evergreen to Echo Lake, you can often see snowshoe rabbits along the way, especially on moonlit nights.

Their tracks can often be found in the snowdrifts beneath the trees in the coniferous forest, which often do not melt until well into the summer. This road is plowed regularly and is safe if no storm is threatening, and you can go on through to Idaho Springs.

It’s best to stay on the main road this time of year, for you are more likely to be found if you get lost or stuck. Also, it is best to stay in approved areas, for the danger of avalanches is very high, especially in spring.

We used to take a trip every year on Washington’s birthday to see white-tailed ptarmigan in their winter plumage, but the Guanella Pass road is closed due to a landslide. The only other places I know where to look for them are dangerous avalanche areas, which are closed this time of year. You may have to wait for summer to do any ptarmigan-looking.

There is a good crop of pinecones this year, and I am getting reports of both evening and pine grosbeaks along roads at 8,000 to 10,000 feet. Pine grosbeaks are very quiet. Just watch for movement in the trees. Evening grosbeaks are loud and talkative. You can hear them if your window is open.

Have fun, but use common sense and caution in the high country.